A Norwegian archaeologist digging in the frozen ground at a medieval excavation site in Oslo found something extremely rare and most unexpected. While sorting through a waste layer left behind by inhabitants of Norway’s capital city many centuries ago, Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug pulled out a small object that she at first thought was a fish bone. After brushing it off a bit, she realized that what she was actually holding was a small figurine, which clearly was of a very ancient origin, that quickly became a rare ancient falconry artifact.
The falconry figurine recently unearthed in central Oslo. ( NIKU)
The Small Norwegian Falconry Figurine Was Very Detailed
The three-inch-long (7.5-centimeter-long), well-preserved figurine had been carved into a stylized image of a human being. While not entirely proportional, the image was carved precisely enough that its details were easy to make out and they were fascinating.
The figurine, which has been dated to the 13th century, depicts a man or woman wearing a crown, suggesting that it might have been a king or queen. Perched on its folded arm was a tiny carving of a bird, which Grindhaug and her colleagues immediately recognized as a peregrine falcon.
This meant the king or queen in question had been engaged in the extremely ancient sport of falconry , which uses trained falcons to hunt for small animals. It isn’t known how common falconry was in the lands of medieval Norway , but at that time is was a sport reserved for aristocrats and other elites, including kings and queens.
According to a press release from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), the recovered figurine is one of the earliest visual representations of falconry ever recovered in Scandinavia. Only a few other representations of this ancient sport of have been found in Northern Europe, which is what makes this such a notable discovery.
Person wearing a medieval helmet and carrying a peregrine falcon, getting ready to practice the ancient sport of falconry. ( Raquel Pedrosa / Adobe Stock)
Royal Falconry in Medieval Norway: An Elite Tradition
The excavations that produced this unique object have been ongoing in Oslo since August of this year. They are part of a larger historical preservation and development project, as archaeologists from the NIKU have been unearthing the remains of an ancient medieval settlement buried in a field in the city’s Old Town.
So far, the NIKU archaeologists have uncovered a mixture of artifacts and the remains of ancient infrastructure projects. They’ve found traces of buildings, roads, property boundaries, wells, water pipes, and other signs that show Oslo was a growing and vital city during medieval times.
Despite depicting a person of importance, the figurine was found in a discarded waste layer, indicating it had been disposed of in ancient Oslo’s equivalent of a landfill.
Ann-Ingeborg Floa Grindhaug holds the falconry figurine at the site (Maja Brendal Hauan/ NIKU).
The Detailed Figurine was Carved From Bone or Antler
It was made from some type of organic material, which may have been either bone or antler . The image on the figurine features a disproportionately large head and a smiling face. The head is topped with a crown, from beneath which flows long curly hair that drapes down to the neckline. The falcon is sitting on the right gloved arm of the figure, apparently ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
The facial features make it impossible to tell if the individual pictured is a man or a woman. The figure is wearing a long robe, which also offers no hint as to the person’s gender identity. Aristocratic men and women both participated in the sport in medieval Europe, and some of the previously recovered images of European falconry clearly show women engaged in the activity.
Interestingly, the lower half of the figurine is hollow, and in cross-section it is somewhat flattened. This makes it likely that the object was actually the shaft of a knife that was manufactured both as a grip and for decorative purposes.
It is reasonable to conclude the person on the figurine was a king or queen. However, it’s possible the individual was from a lower level of nobility, and that the object on the person’s head was a slightly different type of headgear that only resembles the classic royal crown.
Regardless of the person’s identity, they may very well have resided at the nearby Kongsgård estate. This medieval estate and fortress was apparently constructed by King Harald Hardrada during the 11th century, and was eventually repurposed as the official royal residence in the late 13th century when King Haakon V transferred the capital of Norway from Bergen to Oslo.
The falconry figurine could be depicting a man or a woman, but which is it? This image shows the Norwegian fjords and a Viking warrior woman a black crow as her attack “falcon.” ( Fernando Cortés / Adobe Stock)
Who Is the Person on the Figurine? Here’s One Possibility
There is simply no way to positively identify the individual depicted on the tiny statuette or knife handle. But historical facts suggest it could have been the father of King Haakon V, Håkon Håkonsson (King Haakon IV). One of the best representatives of the Haakon Dynasty , he ruled Norway from 1217 to 1263 AD, and was known as an enthusiastic practitioner and promoter of the sport of falconry.
Håkon Håkonsson was a highly educated individual who went to great efforts to expand the power and prestige of his kingdom. He brought peace and unity to Norway, after years of civil warfare had threatened to tear it apart. He constructed or remodeled royal palaces and estates to make them more closely resemble the spectacular palaces found in other European nations.
King Haakon IV actively sought to forge mutually beneficial relationships with other kingdoms in Europe. He made overtures to virtually all of the 13th-century royal courts on the continent, seeking political allies and valuable trading partners wherever he could find them.
One of his most common tactics to secure such alliances was to send trained peregrine falcons as gifts to kings, queens, and other influential people in the various European kingdoms. From this Håkon Håkonsson’s perspective, a falcon was the most impressive and important gift he could give.
Falconry was practiced in the Norwegian court both before and after the reign of Håkon Håkonnson. Therefore, the figurine could have represented a lot of different people. But it would be only fitting if it was in fact this king since he was more closely associated with falconry in medieval Norway than any other individual.
As excavations continue at the prospective medieval park in Oslo, perhaps new clues will emerge that can settle the question of the identity of the mysterious figure on the rare carved artifact once and for all.
Top image: The rare medieval falconry figurine found in an ancient land fill site uncovered in the Old Town of Norway, Oslo. Source: NIKU
By Nathan Falde